Cubans left home­less by Irma try to keep faith in the rev­o­lu­tion

‘Surely this should be one of the first build­ings you evac­u­ate. But no­body came' Lixa Peñalver, Ha­vana res­i­dent

The Guardian - - INTERNATIONAL - Ted Fran­cis Ha­vana Ad­di­tional re­port­ing by Amanda Holpuch in New York

Ha­vana was in mid­night dark­ness and the flood wa­ters were neck high when Yanelis Ro­dríguez fi­nally gave up hope that help was on its way.

As waves crashed over the Malecón sea­wall 200 me­tres away, Ro­dríguez and her two young chil­dren waded through Hur­ri­cane Irma’s storm surge to safety. “The winds started at four in the af­ter­noon. We’d waited so long be­cause we just as­sumed the gov­ern­ment would come and help us,” she said.

It had been a har­row­ing night: in the early hours an iron girder had crashed on to the roof above them. Yanelis ran into the street be­fore chang­ing her mind and go­ing back in­side – it was too danger­ous to seek refuge else­where.

Irma hit Cuba as a cat­e­gory 5 hur­ri­cane on Satur­day, caus­ing cat­a­strophic de­struc­tion in a coun­try that prides it­self on dis­as­ter pre­pared­ness. At least 10 peo­ple died – Cuba’s worse hur­ri­cane death toll since Hur­ri­cane Den­nis killed 16 in 2005. Seven deaths were in Ha­vana, whose de­cay­ing build­ings were no match for the storm. As up­rooted trees were hauled away, many in the cap­i­tal were ask­ing whether au­thor­i­ties were ready for an­other storm.

Two brothers, Roy­dis and Wal­frido Valdés, died in their Ha­vana flat when a block of con­crete fell from four storeys above. More than a dozen peo­ple re­main in the 100-year-old build­ing. Cracks be­tween bricks are many inches wide. Like many of Ha­vana’s once-el­e­gant build­ings, it has re­ceived lit­tle main­te­nance in years. “The gov­ern­ment knows this build­ing is li­able to col­lapse,” said a neigh­bour, Lixa Peñalver, 47, adding that an el­derly man fell to his death years ago when an­other part of the build­ing caved in. “If you know that there’s a big risk, surely this should be one of the first build­ings you evac­u­ate. But no­body came.”

María Estela Pe­droso said she had been try­ing to con­vince of­fi­cials to re­lo­cate her for more than a decade. “No­body should be liv­ing where we are liv­ing,” she shouted.

Luís Dilu Galiente is president of the build­ing’s Com­mit­tee for the De­fence of the Rev­o­lu­tion – a neigh­bour­hood body that pro­vides ba­sic so­cial ser­vices and also watches out for counter-rev­o­lu­tion­ary ac­tiv­i­ties. He ad­mit­ted the block had not been evac­u­ated but pointed out that many lo­cals had taken in peo­ple seek­ing shel­ter – part of Cuba’s emer­gency plan­ning. A fam­ily of six has been stay­ing in Galiente’s two-bed­room flat since be­fore Irma struck. “The state didn’t send buses to evac­u­ate the build­ing like they have on other oc­ca­sions. But any­body can find refuge if they want it – at least with their neigh­bours,” he said.

Cuban me­dia re­ported that more than a mil­lion were evac­u­ated across the is­land. Tele­vi­sion ran reg­u­lar up­dates ad­vis­ing peo­ple to take pre­cau­tions be­fore the hur­ri­cane, though fore­casts did not place Ha­vana in its path.

Three-quar­ters of the work­force is em­ployed by the state, so in times of cri­sis the gov­ern­ment can mar­shal its hu­man and ma­te­rial re­sources. The week be­fore the storm, the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal in­dus­try was in­structed to put other medicines on hold so as to man­u­fac­ture and dis­trib­ute hy­dra­tion salts.

Don­ald Trump re­newed the US em­bargo on Cuba for an­other year hours be­fore Irma made land­fall. The em­bargo makes mat­ters worse for the hous­ing stock, with Cuba forced to pay over the odds for build­ing ma­te­ri­als as it can­not buy from multi­na­tion­als that trade with the US so is forced to source items from fur­ther afield. With dozens of ho­tels smashed, mil­lions still with­out power and thou­sands of hectares of sugar cane de­stroyed, fi­nanc­ing the re­con­struc­tion will be a chal­lenge: the em­bargo also pre­vents Cuba from re­ceiv­ing fund­ing from the IMF, the World Bank and other re­gional lend­ing in­sti­tu­tions.

The Belén con­vent and care home in Old Ha­vana has been trans­formed into a shel­ter. Yorka Gu­tiér­rez Pérez came with her neigh­bours when the front of their build­ing col­lapsed. She hopes to stay in the shel­ter un­til she is given a new house, but it’s likely she’ll have a wait. “I’ve got faith in this gov­ern­ment,” she said. “Un­til now, at least, the rev­o­lu­tion has never aban­doned us.”

10 The num­ber of peo­ple killed in Cuba, its high­est death toll from a hur­ri­cane since 16 peo­ple were killed by Hur­ri­cane Den­nis in 2005

A man wades across a flooded street af­ter Irma’s storm surge in­un­dated parts of Ha­vana Pho­to­graph: Yamil Lageyamil Lage/Getty

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